About the Holiday
Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day to commemorate the laying of wreaths and flowers on soldiers’ gravesites, was first celebrated on May 30, 1868. In 1971 Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act and established the last Monday in May as Memorial Day. The day is honored with parades and special commemorative events. At Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC, the President or Vice President lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
The Poppy Lady: Moina Belle Michael and Her Tribute to Veterans
Written by Barbara Elizabeth Walsh | Illustrated by Layne Johnson
In April of 1917 President Woodrow Wilson declared that America was going to war in Europe. As a teacher and foster mother to girls at the University of Georgia’s Normal School, Moina Belle Michael wanted to do something to honor the boys going off to fight—boys who were the brothers, sweethearts, even fathers of her students. Moina did what the other women were doing to help—knitting socks and sweaters and rolling bandages—but she wanted to do more. She went to the soldiers’ camps nearby to deliver books, magazines, and candy, and she waved goodbye to them at the train station. But she still wanted to do more.
Moina wanted to go overseas to help the young men with the Y.M.C.A, but after she finished her training at New York’s Columbia University, she was told she was too old to go. She then set up a desk in the basement of Hamilton Hall on the Columbia University campus where she assisted soldiers before they deployed, but the room was dark and dreary. Moina wanted them to have a more cheerful meeting place.
Moina brightened the room with fresh flowers she bought with her small salary. More soldiers came to spend time with her, to share their pictures, letters, and hometown news. But Moina wanted to do even more. One day she rediscovered a poem she had read many times. Titled We Shall Not Sleep, it was written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae and was a tribute to soldiers who had died on the battlefields of Flanders. The poem was illustrated with a field of nameless crosses and bright red poppies. The last verse of the poem urged others to take up the torch of the noble fight. Suddenly, Moina knew what she had to do.
She wrote a poem of her own, giving poppies a special meaning: “And now the Torch and Poppy red / We wear in honor of our dead. / Fear not that ye have died for naught; / We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought / In Flanders Field.” Moina shared her poem with soldiers at the Y. Many wanted to wear red poppies on their uniforms to honor their fallen friends. With a ten dollar donation, Moina went shopping to find artificial red poppies that she and the soldiers could wear.
But finding these flowers was difficult. She finally found one large poppy and 24 smaller ones. She pinned the large one to her coat and with the others wrapped, hurried back to the Y. There she gave the small flowers to some of the men and women leaving for the war in France. But there were so few flowers to share. Moina wanted every American to wear a poppy to remember the soldiers. Always.
The epilogue goes on to reveal that two days after Moina bought those 24 poppies, World War I ended. While everyone was happy to see the soldiers coming home, people wanted to move on, to forget the horrors of the war. But for veterans it wasn’t easy. Jobs were scarce, some veterans were disabled or suffered lingering effects of war.
Moina wanted to help. She wondered if the poppy could benefit returning veterans. After much work she convinced local and international veterans’ groups to adopt the poppy as their memorial flower. People began donating to veterans’ causes, and in return they received a red poppy. Millions of dollars were raised to help the soldiers. Even today, Moina’s red poppies benefit veterans and remind us of their sacrifices and service.
Through her detailed telling of how Moina Belle Michael discovered her life’s work, Barbara Elizabeth Walsh provides a realistic view of the World War I era and the desire of most citizens to do something to help the soldiers fighting the war. The sense of suspense, camaraderie, fear, and disappointment that fueled Moina Michael’s heart and actions are beautifully and straightforwardly presented and give children true knowledge of this time period.
Accompanying the text to maximum effect are Layne Johnson’s inspiring, realistic paintings of the scars of war on both the landscape and the human heart. In close-up portraits, Johnson captures the emotions of the women learning that their brothers, boyfriends, and fathers will be joining the war effort as well as scenes of soldiers training, deploying, and returning to tell their stories. Turning the pages is like stepping onto the university campus, visiting the basement gathering space, and walking the city streets. Especially evocative are the two battle scenes and the view of the Flanders Fields with their endless carpet of poppies and straight rows of white cross markers.
For anyone wanting to teach or learn about the origins and meaning of Memorial Day and the significance of the red poppy, The Poppy Lady: Moina Belle Michael and Her Tribute to Veterans is a must read.
Ages 7 – 12 and up
Calkins Creek, Boyds Mills Press, 2012 | ISBN 978-1590787540
Discover more about Barbara Elizabeth Walsh and her books on her website.
To learn more about Layne Johnson and his art, visit his website.
Memorial Day Activity
Memorial Day Word Scramble
Unscramble the words associated with today’s holiday and discover a secret message! Print your Memorial Day Word Scramble here!
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